1921-March 22, 2013
Los Altos Hills, California
Robert Smithwick, a founder of Foothill College who served as a trustee for nearly 35 years, died on March 22 at his home in Los Altos Hills. He was 92.
Smithwick was a young dentist in Los Altos in 1956 when he attended early planning meetings for a "junior college," convened by then-Palo Alto School Superintendent Henry M. Gunn.
He chaired the original elected board of trustees of Foothill, which was built with funds from a $10.4 million bond issue passed in May 1958. Smithwick, who maintained a dentistry practice in Sunnyvale until 1983, was until recently a regular presence at college events. Dick Henning, who founded the Celebrity Forum Speakers Series in the 1960s (now at Flint Center at De Anza College), said Smithwick rarely missed a speaker and typically sent a hand-written note afterwards with comments on the talk.
"He had this brown paper and small brown envelopes, just for thank-you notes," Henning recalled Monday. "It's so rare to get hand-written notes these days. He always had a comment and he was always so positive." Smithwick said in a 2008 interview that early planners expected Foothill's enrollment would top out at 6,000. Today's enrollment at Foothill and its sister institution, De Anza College, is more than 40,000. "We were certainly surprised at the demand and glad we were able to meet it in most ways," he said in the 2008 interview with the Weekly.
"People didn't understand much in those days about junior colleges. We wanted to prove to them that we could be as good or better than any of the good four-year schools in terms of quality of education.
"Today people take it for granted, but in those days a lot of high school seniors didn't even think about going to college. They just went to work.
"We wanted to encourage them to go to college."
Henning said Smithwick was fond of a quote from the Roman orator Cicero: "What greater or better gift can we offer the republic than to teach and instruct our youth." Smithwick, whose father was a minister and missionary, spent his young boyhood in India.
After the family returned to the United States, Smithwick moved through eighth grade in six years, high school in three years and university in three years, according to his family.
He graduated from what is now Andrews University in Michigan and the University of Illinois Dental School.
He was married for 60 years to Aileen Lois Russell, who died in 2002. Among his survivors are a daughter Cathye and a son Michael, both of San Jose. He also is survived by his sister-in-law Elizabeth Oswald of Dinuba and his grand-nephew Scott Smithwick of San Jose.